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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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MIT Develops Meltdown-Proof, Nuclear Waste-Eating Reactor

Transatomic, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff is developing a nuclear reactor designed to overcome the major barriers to nuclear power.  For the anti-nuclear folks the design offers to burn up the existing spent fuel from the world’s fleet of nuclear reactors in a design that doesn’t offer a chance for a meltdown.  That should be nirvana for those alarmed about atomic energy and weapons proliferation.


For everyone else, the first offering is we would see a reduction in spent fuel containment costs and get electrical energy, lots of it, instead.  The second is the design would be factory produced cutting build costs in a huge way and the reactors would be larger than the currently trendy Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) offering the chance to install at existing locations saving on the generation and grid connection costs.

Transatomic, founded by a pair of very smart and innovative young nuclear engineers, has updated the molten-salt reactor, a reactor type that’s highly resistant to meltdowns. Molten-salt reactors were demonstrated in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Lab, where one test reactor ran for six years.  What remains is raising $5 million to run five experiments to help validate the new basic design.

Russ Wilcox, Transatomic’s new CEO estimates that it will take eight years to build a prototype reactor at a cost of $200 million.  The company has already raised $1 million in seed funding, including some from Ray Rothrock, a partner at the venture capital firm Venrock.

The cofounders, Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, who we met here in April last year, are still PhD candidates at MIT. Yet the design has attracted some top advisors, including Regis Matzie, the former CTO of the major nuclear power plant supplier Westinghouse Electric, and Richard Lester, the head of the nuclear engineering department at MIT.

Ms Dewan Mr. Massie and Mr. Lester of Transatomic Power
Ms Dewan Mr. Massie and Mr. Lester of Transatomic Power.

The new reactor design called the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR) so far exists only on paper.  Ray Rothrock says the company will face many challenges. “The technology doesn’t bother me in the least,” he said. “I have confidence in the people. I wish someone would build this thing, because I think it would work. It’s all the other factors that make it daunting.”  We’ll get to those daunting factors in a moment.

Background – today’s conventional nuclear power plant is cooled by water, which boils at 100º C a temperature far below the 2,000° C at the core of a fuel pellet. Even after the reactor is shut down, it must be continuously cooled by pumping in water until the whole internal core apparatus is below 100º C.  The inability to do that properly is what has caused the problems at troubled plants.  Oddly, the nuclear industry and regulatory agencies haven’t come to realize the notion of mixing water and nuclear fuel is the dangerous matter.

The big problems can be solved by using molten salt, instead of water as the coolant, which is mixed in with the fuel. Molten salt has a boiling point higher than the operating temperature of the fuel. That way the reactor has a built-in thermostat – if it starts to heat up, the salt expands, spreading out the fuel and slowing the reactions cooling the thing off.

In the event of a power outage where cooling circulation would stop carrying away the heat, a plug at the bottom of the reactor melts and the fuel and salt mixture flows by gravity into a holding tank, where the fuel spreads out enough for the reactions to stop. The salt then cools and solidifies, encapsulating the radioactive materials.

Ms Dewan now the company’s chief science officer says, “It’s walk-away safe, if you lose electricity, even if there are no operators on site to pull levers, it will coast to a stop.”

She needs only $5 million to prove it.

Technology – Transatomic’s design improves on the original molten-salt reactor by changing the internal geometry and using different materials. Transatomic is keeping many of the proprietary design details to itself, but one change involves eliminating the graphite that made up 90% of the volume of the Oak Ridge reactor. The company has also modified conditions in the reactor to produce faster neutrons, which makes it possible to burn most of the material that is ordinarily discarded as waste.

WAMSR Reactor Schematic Graphic Diagram.
WAMSR Reactor Schematic Graphic Diagram.

The design offers a couple other real strong incentives.  Because it runs at atmospheric pressure rather than the high pressures required in conventional reactors the amount of steel and concrete needed to guard against accidents is greatly reduced.  The technical approach will work for uranium or for the future thorium fuels as well.

Related article: Will Japan Embrace Geothermal Power to Move Away from Nuclear?

Here is the comparison that should light up the hearts of the antinuclear crowd.  A conventional 1,000-megawatt reactor produces about 20 metric tons (44,000 lbs.) of high-level waste a year, and that material needs to be safely stored for 100,000 years. The 500-megawatt Transatomic reactor will produce only four kilograms (8.8 lbs.) of such waste a year, along with 250 kilograms (550 lbs.) of waste that has to be stored for a few hundred years.

In the presentation the duo projects some warming numbers for both the low cost power and the anti nuclear folks.  Conventional nuclear reactors can utilize only about 3% of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium before it has to be removed from the reactor. The Transatomic design captures 98% of this remaining energy.  A fully deployed Transatomic reactor fleet could use existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to satisfy the world’s electricity needs for 70 years, now through 2083 when about 99.2% of today’s dangerous spent fuel – would be burned away.


Even though the basic idea of a molten-salt reactor has been demonstrated the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) certification process is set up around light-water reactors.  NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said for the next few years, the NRC will be focused on certifying the more conventional designs for SMNRs.  But he also said that the commission is aware of Transatomic’s concept but that designs haven’t been submitted for review yet.  The certification process for Transatomic will take at least five years once the company submits a detailed design, with additional review needed specifically for issues related to fuel and waste management.

The detailed design is years and $4 million more dollars away.  Wilcox estimated that it will take eight years to build a prototype reactor – at a cost of $200 million.  Low cost power customers and the antinuclear folks might want to coordinate getting the Congress to rewrite the NRC’s procedures to speed things up.

After all, China is reported to be investing $350 million over five years to develop molten-salt reactors of its own. It plans to build a two-megawatt test reactor by 2020.

It’d be a pity to miss out on a trillion dollar industrial market and trillions more in electricity savings.  Plus get rid of all that weapons ready, costly to store used fuel.

A hat tip goes to Brian Wand for spotting the latest update to Tranatomic’s progress.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Original source: The Nuke The Anti Nuke Crowd Should Love

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  • Susanne E. Vandenbosch on March 18 2013 said:
    This is a question - not a criticism. Will the fast neutrons activate isotopes in the container material, making it very radioactive and difficult to dispose of.
  • SA Kiteman on March 23 2013 said:
    One can get the same basic effect with Flibe Energy's Spent Fuel Digester and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Recycler (LFTR). The MIT work is nothing new.
  • Mel Tisdale on March 29 2013 said:
    Anything that wakes up the powers that be to press ahead with nuclear power generation gets my vote. We have listened to the Greens for far too long. They look forward to a life that uses draft animals to enable farmers to provide food for us. A green dream, which is better described as a black nightmare (but with roses aplenty!)

    Give us loads of electrical power and it is a pound to a penny that humankind will soon find a way of sensibly using it to power all vehicles, including multi-wheelers, not just trendy cars and bikes. According to some we have not got too long to make the conversion before fossil fuels, particularly oil, will be too expensive and not available at the rate we need them. It is difficult to see how society can avoid some form of collapse when that time comes.

    So let's have a massive Manhattan type project to get LFTR and/or other molten salt reactors operational, be they the ones discussed here or small modular ones. If they can guarantee that they will not provide terrorists with nukes, are as safe as claimed and have minimal waste, what's not to like? (And they offer a lot better existence than our having to spend all our time looking up where the sun don't shine as our horse pulls our plough.)
  • Curry B Taylor on March 31 2013 said:
    As much as I love MIT, and academics in general, I cannot condone use of taxpayer funds to support yet another possible failure in a startup energy company. We need Manhattan-scale projects desperately, but they have to come from industry, private institutions, and individual donations, not from government mandate. Crowdfunding and high-risk investing on big ideas, rather than coercive taxation, is the wave of the future. Voluntary individual and private enterprise funded many large projects before governments got so involved in every aspect of our lives, but this is the way it will be again. We just need to reduce the tax burden significantly enough so that there is enough money left over in the hands of the people for big ideas to be chased. The world used to be an oyster, now it is run by theft and committee decree. People wonder why big scientific projects cannot ever happen -- it's not because Congress doesn't budget enough money to science and startup companies, it's because that it does.
  • Samson on January 15 2014 said:
    Thank you Ms Dewan and Mr Massie, you two really look like you know what your doing. So i'm going to move to put the future of nuclear power in your hands. Keep on moving forward, you seem to know exactly where nuclear power needs to go in the future.
  • T. Griffin on April 11 2014 said:
    Vandenbosch: this depends entirely upon the materials that are chosen to build the primary side pressure vessel... Well, vessel in this case, as it operates at atmospheric pressure. A common problem, and controllable risk in light water reactors is the formation of Co-60. The half life is only about 5.2 years, but it beta decays at a rather high energy (2.4ish MeV iirc). If these designers are as progressive as touted, perhaps they can find materials without known isotope propagators. This seems plausible as there will not be terribly stringent pressure retaining requirements, on the primary side at least.

    I find it somewhat misleading to suggest that water in a light water reactor boils at 100C. A traditional PWR utility reactor's primary side operates at ~300 C and 2000 psig, maintaining the liquid state of the water.
  • David T on June 18 2014 said:
    Sounds somewhat like the em2 reactor that General Atomics is proposing -- at least in terms of using nuclear waste as its fuel.

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